Expression of brush border hydrolases can reflect the state of differentiation of an epithelium. To determine if expression of these enzymes is disordered in patients with neoplastic or hyperplastic lesions, the activities of alkaline phosphatase, maltase, and dipeptidyl peptidase IV were measured spectrophotometrically in colonoscopic biopsies from the proximal and distal colon and rectum in 50 controls, 17 patients with large bowel adenomas, 29 with carcinoma, and 9 with hyperplastic polyps. In normal controls, a descending cecorectal gradient of alkaline phosphatase activities and an ascending gradient of maltase activities were seen (P < 0.001). Though regional patterns of expression were generally preserved in disease groups, there were significant differences of activities across patient groups for alkaline phosphatase (greater in cancer, adenoma, and hyperplastic groups than in normals; P < 0.05) and for dipeptidyl peptidase IV (greater in hyperplastic polyp group than normals, greater in adenoma than cancer group; P < 0.05). Compared with normal controls, abnormalities of site-specific activities were confined to the rectum in patients with adenoma (maltase decreased, P = 0.02; dipeptidyl peptidase IV increased, P < 0.01) or with carcinoma (alkaline phosphatase increased, P = 0.03) but dipeptidyl peptidase IV activities were increased in all regions in bowels bearing hyperplastic polyps (P < 0.01). These data suggest that neoplastic and hyperplastic lesions, while focal in nature, occur in large bowel epithelium, which is diffusely abnormal in terms of its expression of these enzymes.